"Is it true that Americans get only two weeks vacation a year?" a Swiss journalist asked me the other day.
I confirmed that this was the standard.
He shook his head sadly. "But it would be so good for your economy."
"More vacation," he explained. "It would give such a boost to your tourist industry."
In my bafflement, I had never felt more like an American.
But a few days later, another conversation left me wondering if I was starting to go native.
"Vacation plans?" a friend in the States asked over the phone.
"Nothing special," I said. "Two weeks in the country in Tuscany and Umbria."
"Wow," said my friend, a lawyer in hedonistic California. "I'm only taking five days."
I didn't know whether to feel lucky or guilty. Naturally I ended up both. Leisure is a subject that rouses me to even higher than usual levels of ambivalence.
On one hand, I share my countrymen's traditional reverence for labor. Four hundred years ago, Captain John Smith invoked St. Paul to admonish his fellow Jamestown settlers that "if any would not work, neither should he eat," and ever since, most Americans have believed (consciously or not) in the sanctity of toil.
The New World cult of work implies abhorrence of Old World idleness. This is not a reaction to the post-war European welfare state; it has far deeper roots. When Thomas Edison visited France over a century ago, he was struck by "the absolute laziness of everybody over here. When do these people work? What do they work at? People here seem to have established an elaborate system of loafing. I don't understand it at all."
After four years of dealing with bureaucrats who can't be bothered to answer the phone, shop assistants who treat requests for service as personal insults, and postal clerks who do their nails or chat with each other while long-suffering patrons wait in line, I'm with Edison (who was talking about Parisians -- dynamos compared to the residents of Rome).
On the other hand, while work is a good thing, obsessions by definition are not. And Americans are obsessed with work. When I see off-duty American friends constantly in cell-phone contact with the office; when I meet compatriots who have nothing more exciting to talk about than their jobs; and when I catch myself scanning the streets of an exquisite medieval town for sign of an Internet cafe where I can check my e-mail -- then I think that we could learn something from our European cousins.
If only it were as easy as taking more leave. Many Americans, especially ambitious professionals and business people, can't spend time enjoyably except in obviously productive ways. That's because they define themselves through their work. Leisure seems a waste of life, a betrayal of the self. Yet philosophy teaches that leisure, properly understood, is the only activity in which we are truly ourselves. While I accept this truth intellectually, it still makes me uneasy to affirm it in writing. I'm an American, after all. But it helps that I'm writing it for publication. In other words, for my job.